What Does Airplane Mode Do, and Is It Really Necessary?

By Chris Hoffman on August 11th, 2014

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Airplane mode disables a device’s cellular radio, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth—all the wireless transmission functions. But many airplanes now offer in-flight Wi-Fi, and cellular access may be coming to planes soon—so where does that leave airplane mode?

Even if you never fly, airplane mode offers a quick way to disable many of your device’s battery-draining radios. It can extend your device’s battery life as long as you don’t need any of those wireless radios.

What Does Airplane Mode Do?

Whatever device you’re using—an Android phone, iPhone, iPad, Windows tablet, or whatever else—airplane mode disables the same hardware functions. These include:

  • Cellular: Your device will stop communicating with cell towers. You won’t be able to send or receive anything that depends on cellular data, from voice calls to SMS messages to mobile data.
  • Wi-Fi: Your phone will stop scanning for nearby Wi-Fi networks and attempting to join them. If you’re already connected to a Wi-Fi network, you’ll be disconnected.
  • Bluetooth: Airplane mode disables Bluetooth, a wireless communication technology most people associate with wireless headsets. But Bluetooth can be used for many other things, including keyboards and mice.
  • GPS: Airplane mode also disables GPS-receiving functions, but only on some devices. This is a bit confusing and inconsistent. In theory, GPS is unlike all the other technologies here—a device with GPS turned on is only listening to GPS signals it receives, not transmitting any signals. However, some aircraft regulations do not allow the use of GPS-receiving functions for whatever reason.

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When airplane mode is enabled, you’ll often see an airplane icon in your device’s notification bar, which appears on the top bar on Android devices, iPhones, and iPads. You can still use devices on the aircraft—even during takeoff and landing—as long as airplane mode is enabled. You don’t have to power them off.

Why is Airplane Mode Necessary?

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Regulations in many countries prohibit the use of devices that transmit signals on commercial aircraft. A typical phone or cellular-enabled tablet is communicating with several cell towers and attempting to maintain a connection at all times. If the towers are far away, the phone or tablet has to boost its signal so it can communicate with the towers. This sort of communication could interfere with an airplane’s sensors and potentially cause issues with sensitive navigation equipment. That’s the concern that brought these laws about, anyway. In reality, modern equipment is robust. Even if these transmissions do cause problems, your plane won’t fall out of the sky because a few people forgot to enable airplane mode!

A more demonstrable concern is that, as you’re traveling very quickly, all the phones on the plane would be constantly handing off from cell tower to cell tower. This would interfere with the cellular signals people on the ground receive. You wouldn’t want your phone to do this hard work, anyway—it would drain its battery and it wouldn’t be able to maintain a signal properly, anyway.

Use Airplane Mode to Save Battery Power

Airplane mode is useful even when you’re on the ground, offering an excellent way to save battery power on your device. The radios on a device use a large amount of power, communicating with cell towers, scanning for and connecting to nearby Wi-Fi networks, waiting for incoming Bluetooth connections, and occasionally checking your location via GPS.

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Turn airplane mode to disable all those radios. Bear in mind that this will block incoming phone calls and SMS messages on a phone, but it can be a great battery-saving tip if you really need that last bit of juice. It’s especially useful on a tablet when you’re just using your tablet as an offline eReader anyway.

You Can Enable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in Airplane Mode

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Wi-Fi is allowed on some airplanes. In fact, many airplanes now offer in-flight Wi-Fi. Enabling airplane mode always disables Wi-Fi. However, on most devices, you can re-enable Wi-Fi after turning on airplane mode. Other radio signals are still blocked, but you’ll at least be able to connect to Wi-Fi networks.

Some devices also allow you to enable Bluetooth when airplane mode is enabled. Whether this is allowed depends on your airline and the regulatory agency in charge.

Cellular Signals May Be Offered on Airplanes Soon

Cellular signals may be coming soon to airplanes, too. The US FCC is looking at changing rules to allow cellular signals on planes flying above 10,000 feet. This is usually explained in the media as “allowing cell phone calls on planes,” but it’s more than that. The ruling would also allow texting and any service that uses cellular data. In fact, the US DOT is considering banning cell phone calls on planes. The end result is that you’d be able to text and use cellular data on a plane, but not place voice phone calls. Honestly, that would end up being pretty obnoxious to the people around you, anyway.

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You wouldn’t normally be able to connect to cell towers on the ground, but an airplane that allowed cellular radios would be equipped with “picocells.” These are small cellular base stations to which phones in the plane would connect just like they would any other cell tower. The picocell then beams their signal to a communications satellite, which in turn beams the signal back to a base station on the ground where it can connect to Earth’s cellular networks.

Because the transmitter on the plane is so close to the phones on the plane, the devices can communicate at their lowest transmitting power level. Phones on the plane won’t boost their signal and attempt to contact cell towers on the ground, so this “eliminates the potential for interference,” according to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.


Even if cellular signals were allowed on airplanes, and even if every airplane on Earth were equipped with a picocell, airplane mode would still be necessary. Airplanes that allow WI-Fi do so only above 10,000 feet, and the US FCC’s proposed regulations would only allow cellular signals above 10,000 feet, as well. Airplane mode would still be necessary during takeoff and landing—or just if you wanted to get some shut-eye and save your phone’s precious battery life.

Image Credit: Yuichi Kosio on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 08/11/14
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